Robert Buffington: On "Dead Body"

In "Dead Boy," which to a degree also involves a failure of ceremony, we can count five ways of viewing the death. There is the purely objective view: "He was pale and little, the foolish neighbors say." The view is conveyed by the title itself--"dead boy," object, one of a class; by the businesslike metaphors of death, "subtraction" and "transaction"; by the very tone the speaker takes in a phrase like "the world of outer dark":

And none of the county kin like the transaction,

Nor some of the world of outer dark, like me.

But the purely objective or practical viewpoint is held only by the "foolish neighbors"; the speaker's viewpoint, while objective, is also understanding and sympathetic.

A pig with a pasty face, so I had said,

Squealing for cookies, kinned by poor pretense

With a noble house. But the little man quite dead,

I see the forbears' antique lineaments.

The tone of the second sentence, "But the little man quite dead . . . " as Ransom reads it, is not a tone of revelation, but of concession, so that there is no development in the speaker's attitude: the speaker instead keeps his dual viewpoint.

These are the objective viewpoints. The subjective viewpoints are that of the mother: "never / Woman bewept her babe as this is weeping" (but the verb the poet assigns her, bewept, keeps her at a distance); and, very different from hers, that of the Virginia patriarchs, who are "hurt with a deep dynastic wound." And last, there is the religious viewpoint: "The first-fruits, saith the Preacher, the Lord hath taken." Ideally, the religious viewpoint becomes the inclusive viewpoint. But the grief of the elder men, on which the poem focuses, is not reconciled to the large view. Much of their situation and their feeling tells in the single word strode in the next-to-last stanza:

The elder men have strode by the box of death

To the wide flag porch, and muttering low send round

The bruit of the day.

The word suggests the long limbs of the men of the "noble house"--though sapless now--their habit of decisive movement, the wide-legged movement perhaps of horsemen--in a word, the strength which will end with them and to which the boy, "pale and little," would probably not have succeeded anyway had he lived. And the word implies their impatience with the ceremony of death, which does not console them; for

this was the old tree's late branch wrenched away,

Grieving the sapless limbs, the shorn and shaken.


Title Robert Buffington: On "Dead Body" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Robert Buffington Criticism Target John Crowe Ransom
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 25 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Equilibrist: A Study of John Crowe Ransom's Poems, 1916-1963
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